Eager's Football Friday - Week 5

by Eric Eager|October 6, 2023

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Happy Football Friday from Minneapolis! 

The first quarter-ish of the season is over, and the biggest statement of the season so far was made this past week by my pick to win the Super Bowl, the Buffalo Bills, who bested the previously undefeated Miami Dolphins 48-20. Josh Allen is currently a 7/2-favorite to win the NFL MVP per FanDuel Sportsbook despite struggling during his Week 1 loss. The previous favorite, Tua Tagovailoa, sits at 5-1 with the reigning MVP, Patrick Mahomes.  

Using the data from the new and improved SumerSports.com, we will go over some of the thoughts and predictions I made a week ago and provide some for this coming week.  

Week 5’s slate has another heavyweight battle, this time on Sunday night. Mike Trico and Cris Collinsworth will call Dallas at San Francisco in a rematch of a 2022 Divisional Round playoff matchup in addition to the 2021 Wild Card Game. Christian McCaffrey has made (some) people re-think the idea that a running back can’t win MVP, while Micah Parsons and company have a top-two defense in the NFL statistically so far.  

Kansas City heads to Minnesota for a must-win game for the purple. Minnesota is the only team, other than Kansas City, that Mahomes has not defeated as a starter. Houston vs. Atlanta is a sneaky-important matchup of two teams going in opposite directions at 2-2. Per our model, Atlanta has the easiest schedule remaining, while Houston has the third easiest. The winner of the game will likely have an inside track at the playoffs, while the other is left searching for answers.  

Let’s dig in.  

A Review of CHI @ WAS

In a rematch of a 12-7 privilege of a game from Week 6 of 2022, the Bears and Commanders clashed last night in a big game for an upstart Washington franchise looking to be above 0.500 at this stage of the season for the first time since 2018, the first year of the Alex Smith era.  

Unfortunately for the Commanders, the Bears jumped out to an early lead and never really let up. D.J. Moore, who came over in the trade for the first-overall pick in 2023 draft, led the way with a career high 230 yards and three touchdowns. The Bears were able to leverage an early 17-0 lead into a 40-20 victory in Landover. 

Justin Fields provided a second-straight encouraging game, turning 29 pass attempts into 282 yards and four touchdowns, while taking just two sacks and not turning the ball over. Sam Howell, on the other hand, took five sacks from a Bears defense that tallied just 22 in the previous 21 games as the Commanders failed to sustain offense until it was too late. 

After a promising 2-0 start, the Commanders are now on a three-game losing streak and face one of the harder schedules in football. On the other side, things lighten up a bit for Chicago, who will host a Vikings team next week that will be trying to avoid a 1-4 start this weekend at home against Kansas City. 

A Trend I’m Monitoring 

At the quarter poll, it’s time to look back at kickoffs, a topic I talked about in the Week 1 version of this column. In the offseason, the NFL added a rule where the receiving team on a kickoff can fair catch such kicks, resulting in the same outcome as a touchback if caught inside of the 25. Teams basically ignored the new rule during the preseason which, given other trends in kickoffs and kickoff returns in the preseason, meant little as to what these teams would do once the regular season started.  

To my disappointment, there wasn’t a drastic change in kickoff and kickoff return behavior in the sense that there were teams that still a) kicked it short and covered, and b) didn’t fair catch the short kick. Regardless, there have been changes.  

Per nflfastR, 88.3% of kickoffs traveling over 20 yards during the first four weeks went into the end zone or deeper, which is up from 75.1% in 2022, 73.0% in 2021, and 77.7% in 2020. Of the 11.7% of kicks that were short, 14.7% have been fair caught. This is more than I would have guessed, but still represents a small number of actual kickoffs (one-seventh of one-ninth of kickoffs). 

Thus, while the league continues to operate at less than 100% efficiency, it is getting better. In 2022, the average deep kickoff cost the receiving team 0.02 expected points relative to starting the drive with a touchback. In 2023, the average deep kickoff costs the receiving team one-tenth of that, at 0.002 expected points per kick.  

Something I’m Buying 

I’m not breaking any new ground here, as many in the space have been lauding C.J. Stroud’s play over the first four weeks.  

I’m buying hope in Houston. 

While Stroud was my QB1 at times this spring (I eventually moved Richardson to QB1), there were always concerns about his ceiling as he was elevated by a particularly good supporting cast of both offensive linemen and wide receivers at Ohio State. He also played in a lot of game states that are less predictive of future success than some of his contemporaries.  

Some of those doubts were dispelled against Georgia in the College Football Playoff, where Stroud completed 34 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns. After spending most of the first month of the offseason trading as the favorite to be the first-overall pick, he was eventually surpassed by Bryce Young and, in something of an upset in the markets, was taken by the Texans with the second pick. 

After struggling in the preseason, Stroud has been phenomenal in Houston. Despite dealing with injuries along his entire offensive line, he’s taken only 11 sacks on 63 pressured dropbacks, continuing a trend of low pressure-to-sack ratios from his time at Ohio State. He’s eighth in EPA generated on dropbacks, with zero interceptions thrown in the first four weeks.  

While wide receiver was supposed to be a concern, Stroud has elevated the play of Nico Collins (fourth in the league in EPA generated) and Tank Dell (19th), while getting something out of veterans Robert Woods and tight end Dalton Schultz as well.  

As said in the intro, Houston has the third-easiest schedule of remaining opponents, starting with Atlanta on Sunday. We give Houston a 34.4% chance to make the playoffs, and a 21.3% chance to win the AFC South. These numbers are +225 (30.7% breakeven) and +460 (17.9%) in the market.  

Something I’m Selling 

I’m selling whatever is left of the 2023 New York Giants. We saw on Monday night, when the G-Men were downed 24-3 by the Seattle Seahawks, everything that could go wrong if some of the advantages that New York was afforded in 2022 (an easy schedule, with many one-score wins) regressed in 2023.  

The Seahawks, who up until Monday had generated only three turnovers and five sacks, produced three and 11 such plays against Daniel Jones and company Monday, causing 2022’s NFL Coach of the Year, Brian Daboll, to express significant frustration after one of the turnovers. Four games into a four-year, $160-million contract, Jones has generated -45.6 expected points added on dropbacks, which is worst in the NFL. His sack rate of 14.3% is third worst in football, behind only the inexperienced Sam Howell and Aidan O’Connell. His six interceptions are tied for the league lead. In 2022, Jones was sacked on only 8.6% of dropbacks and threw only five interceptions the entire season. With the offense producing so many points and short fields for opposing offenses, the defense has largely been given a pass by the media, even though they are surrendering an EPA per play that is better than only the Raiders, Bears, and Broncos. 

The market gives New York a +760 price to make the playoffs (11.6% breakeven), and a -1400 price (6.7%) to miss the playoffs, with their division future at 65-1 (1.5%). Our numbers at Sumer have them making the playoffs at a rate of 2.8% and winning the division 0.1%. Given that they have the third-toughest schedule remaining, they are much closer to obtaining the first pick (7.8%) than they are to win the Super Bowl (< 1%), which brings up an interesting question: what options do they have with Daniel Jones? 

The short answer is that they don’t have a ton in the way of options until 2025, where they can save over $19 million by releasing him, while incurring more than $22 million in dead cap. In 2024 they can get off Jones, but only if a team is willing to trade for him and his $35.5 million guaranteed paragraph 5 base salary – which unlike prorated bonus money, goes with Jones if he is traded (but stays on the Giants’ cap if he were to be released). 

We only really have one example of a team offloading that kind of salary – when Houston sent the Nick Chubb draft pick to the Browns along with Brock Osweiler’s contract in 2017. Osweiler, who played just one year in Houston and was later cut by the Browns out of training camp, cost the two teams a combined $25 million dead against the cap in 2017, $9 million prorated from his signing bonus to Houston, and another $16 million to Cleveland – which was effectively the team buying a second-round pick.

That’s about $35 million dollars in today’s cap – which is less than what the Giants and a trade partner would be on the hook for next year ($69 million), underscoring just how much of an investment this was in the fifth-year quarterback from Duke. 

With Saquon Barkley nursing an injury and up for free agency after the season, Darren Waller (153 yards, zero touchdowns) struggling as the team’s top receiver, and 2022 first-rounder Evan Neal yet to make the Andrew Thomas second-year jump, Daboll and company have their work cut out for them. 

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